Building An Effective Integral Spiritual Life
This essay is a response to a reading related to the 18 point checklist of building an authentic spiritual life. If you have not seen this essay, click here.
Rather than respond number by number and point by point, I will attempt to present my response in an essay format.
I believe that the 18 points can be summarized in the following way. The need to put priority on our relationship with the Infinite Oneness (I will use God as a metaphor for a referent); our relationship to ourselves; our relationship to others; the daily discipline of the spiritual life, by living in the moment and serving others.
For the purposes of this essay, I will discuss two approaches one can take to building an effective spiritual life. The first approach is for persons who are unclear about where to begin and have an unfocused understanding (see my essay, And With Delight). The second approach is for those persons who have chosen to focus on a particular spiritual tradition.
If you have little exposure, confusion or preparation for the spiritual life, it would be important for you to do a literature search, to visit different worship experiences and traditions and also to read or have interviews with exemplary persons who embody in a beautiful and attractive way, the goal of the spiritual life. It would be important to notice a particular attraction and/or tradition that keep speaking to you bringing you excitement and joy, inspiring you and bringing you out of yourself. This inner movement might be an indication of where you might begin your journey.
The second approach will be the main focus of this essay. I believe it is very important for a person to become very knowledgeable, experienced and grounded in a particular and specific spiritual tradition. In any skill development, there must be a mastery of the “basics” in order to be able to manifest higher order skill and creativity. By mastering a particular, specific spiritual tradition; developing a high order of discipline and knowledge allows a person to become deeply grounded. It also allows for great clarity when exploring other spiritual disciplines and practices. Exploration of any spiritual tradition can plunge one into a cauldron of psychological, emotional and psychic phenomena which can lead one astray from a balanced life unless one is deeply rooted in a tradition and practice.
When learning a particular sport, basic repetitive moves must be mastered before one can compete at a higher level. When learning a musical instrument certain body movements and constant repetitions must be maintained in order to play more difficult music or even to be creative. The greatest artists have achieved technical mastery over their milieu which then allowed them to depart into innovative expression. Integral spirituality can be like that!
Some of the most beautiful spiritual human beings on the earth, are able to taste, experience and honor other spiritual traditions than there own because they are connected and secure in their own disciplines and traditions.
A great short hand summary of the goal of the spiritual life can be described as follows: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all our soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’”. (New Testament, NIV). All the great spiritual traditions can be boiled down to principles and practices that activate these two great commandments in the life of an individual.
There must be a transcendent/imminent focus on ones’ own personal inner life which includes a relationship and/or connection with the Divine. A person must achieve a healthy understanding of the self and the Self (our image and likeness of God) and how we treat our neighbor. If can be argued that if we have a healthy, whole sense of self where we have done the hard, inner work to heal our fractured self and embrace our shadow, the personality can then appropriately show compassion for the other/Other and live virtues with balance.
St Augustine in the 4th Century once said, “Love and do as you will”. St Paul in the Letter to the Galatians states it this way: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (New Testament, NIV)
The goal of the spiritual life is to so transform the personality so that there becomes a natural, charming and attractive outpouring of focus on God, and compassionate identification and action toward our neighbor (wife, mother, lover, child, fellow worker, friend, enemy, opponent, etc.) The personality is permeated with the fruits of the Spirit. The discipline of the spiritual life leads to freedom from obsessively trying to keep rules which in the end fall short of loving action.
How do we begin to build this discipline, skill and mastery to be able to reach this kind of freedom? In short, how do we become beautiful and bring pleasure to the Divine, to Mother Earth and to our brothers and sisters.
One of the most important first steps to learn and think about God is to study the scriptures of the tradition of your choice. It is also important to read the devotional classics of that tradition along with the scriptures. It is also important as a beginner on the journey to attach oneself to adherents who are balanced, human, and humble and embody the teachings that one is attempting to learn. During this period it would be important to follow the life of an exemplary example.
Along with scripture and devotional reading (making up your own mind before spending much time with commentaries) it is important to set a discipline of prayer and meditation. Setting aside a specific time daily to pray and meditate, journal, ponder a story or saying, learning the methods of meditation (See: And with Delight). Joining others in group and corporate worship and study experiences is also another important building block along the road of mastery of the spiritual life. It is easy in our early zeal to become mistaken in our beliefs and understandings and it takes a wise fellow journeyer to point the way and sometimes correct us lest we fall into pitfalls. A sponsor in AA is one great example of this concept. A study group, prayer group, worship community, etc are other examples of necessary support at this stage.
Another further stepping stone along the way of the spiritual life is the “surrendering of self to a Higher Power”. The 3rd Step of Alcoholics Anonymous is a great example, simply and purely stated. Every great spiritual tradition challenges us to discipline and let go of the false ego or false self to live for higher purposes. This dynamic then begins to purify the fractures and pathologies of the personality. At this point in the journey a wise and human spiritual director and/or psychotherapist is an invaluable resource along the way.
To gain strength in the spiritual life, it is critical that one become vulnerable and open to the feedback both positive and negative of wise persons, our family members and friends who know us well and who can puncture our vanities, pride and self delusion.
A wonderful story in the Old Testament mentions Jacob wrestling with the angel all night for a blessing, coming away with a new name and also limping. The closer we desire to be near God and the more sincere we are in living a beautiful and authentic spiritual life, the more our “shadow” surfaces. This is an area where a person can become very pathological or become transformed into a beautiful human being bringing pleasure to God, the Earth and to humanity.
Many practices along the way can help such as prayer books, devotional books, doing an examination of conscience daily, focusing on blessings and growing in awareness of the gift of life and the gift of our fellow human beings. We then wake up every day with gratitude in our hearts.
In our spiritual life, expressing compassion, dedicating ourselves in some form or other to our fellow human beings is the acid test of the authenticity of our practice. Even if that service is in the way we live in the moment and bring joy to others by the way we are present to them. If our spiritual beliefs and practices do not transform us into loving and gracious human beings, then we know that we have more work to do and we have not arrived and even perhaps we have misunderstood some aspects of the scripture and the teachings we have sincerely attempted to observe.
Only then, when we have built a strong and grounded foundation in a particular tradition and practice can we enjoy the sheer delight and joy of explorations in other spiritual traditions. These explorations allow us to appreciate our own beginning preference even more profoundly and help us to see how God permeates All in All and how amazingly we are all ONE.
By faithfully studying scripture, reading devotional and inspirational classics, taking time daily for that contact with God, growing in our prayer and meditation practice, worshipping and fellowshipping with others in a mindful way with the purpose of growing and practicing justice and mercy toward our brothers and sisters, we soften the rough edges of our personality structure to become a radiant and beautiful example of spirituality, winsome and attractive to others, also effective and competent as a person.
To Go to part 2, which invites you into an exploration of the meaning of integral spirituality, click here.